Human Trafficking—The Problems, Obligations, and Strategies for Hospitality Employers

    By Jason Geller, Regional Managing Partner & Anthony Guzman, Associate, Fisher Phillips

    When we hear the word “slavery,” our mind often takes us to the blemished vestiges of a dark American past that, thankfully, most believe to be long behind us. Recently, however, California law makers have perceived that, unfortunately, in the modern day slavery is alive and well—its new name is human trafficking. As of January 1, 2019, California has enacted Senate Bill 970—a sweeping reform that looks to the hospitality industry to help raise awareness of the problem by requiring hotel and motel operators to provide training to their employees on the problems, warning signs, and reporting strategies for suspected human trafficking cases. Accordingly, employers should be aware of their newly imposed obligations under the law and the emerging strategies for success thereunder.

    Human Trafficking and the Risks to Employers in the Hospitality Industry
    Many feel that human trafficking is actually a far broader problem than most would believe and includes both labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Formally, it is defined as the use of “force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person to provide services, labor, or commercial sex against their will”—although in the case of minors, no force, fraud, or coercion are required.

    Due to its pervasiveness, organizations have recently come under fire for providing services, which could be construed as aiding and abetting trafficking in some remote way. For example, just recently, as of March 25, 2019, a group of fifty (50) anonymous women filed suit against SalesForce in California Superior Court for allegedly assisting the internet marketing efforts of the website known as Backpage.com—which, in additional to providing plainly legitimate postings, had come under fire for allegedly being commonly used by human traffickers.

    Unfortunately, employers in the hospitality industry often encounter this problem more so than most and, as a result, may soon face similar lawsuits. Traffickers are notorious for utilizing hotels and motels, not just for the alleged acts themselves, but also as channels for hiding and transporting trafficking victims to various locations. As a result, hospitality employees tend to be more likely to encounter traffickers, or their victims, in the course of their regular job duties. Accordingly, employers should be vigilant in advising their employees of the common warning signs, such as:

    • Guests who appear disoriented, confused, fearful, timid, or submissive;
    • Guests who are not permitted to speak on their own behalf, or do not have control over their own identification documents;
    • Guests who show signs of physical abuse, such as visible bruises in various stages of healing;
    • Guests who appear to have little or no personal possessions; or
    • Guests who appear to have poor hygiene or show signs of malnourishment or sleep deprivation.

    While any of these signs alone may not indicate a possible incident of human trafficking, hospitality employers should make sure that employees are empowered to recognize and report signs when they do occur.

    Senate Bill 970 and the New Training Requirements
    To help employers recognize and combat these problems, Senate Bill 970 outlines a relatively straightforward approach to employee trainings. According to its terms, every two years, hotel and motel employers are required to provide at least twenty (20) minutes of human trafficking awareness training and education to any of their employees who are “likely to interact or come into contact with victims of human trafficking,” such as receptionists, housekeepers, valets, drivers, bellhops, or anyone who might otherwise have “reoccurring interactions with the public.” In terms of scope, the trainings must including discussions of the following topics:

    • The definition of “Human Trafficking” and the “Commercial Exploitation of Children;”
      Guidance on how to identify individuals who are most at risk for human trafficking;
    • The difference between labor and sex trafficking specific to the hotel sector;
      Guidance on the role of hospitality employees in reporting and responding to issues; and
    • The contact information for appropriate agencies, including the National Human Trafficking Hotline and local law enforcement.

    When conducted, the training must occur in a classroom-like setting or through some other means of effective interactive training—most of which can occur in house or with the assistance of an experienced attorney.

    So What Should Employers Do?
    To mitigate risk, employers should implement these trainings as soon as possible—while keeping two important timelines in mind. For employees hired before January 1, 2019, employers have until January 1, 2020 to complete the trainings. For employees hired after January 1, 2019, however, employers are only permitted until six-months after their date of hire, meaning that employers could be required to be in compliance as early as June of this year.

    Apart from the trainings themselves though, employers can also take other active steps to foster a workplace and culture that is both conscious of and quick to act on suspected instances of human trafficking by, among other things:

    • Providing employees with basic educational materials on human trafficking as a part of their on-boarding process and having them sign acknowledgements regarding their familiarity with some of the most common warning signs;
    • Creating employee handbook policies that require internal reporting of any and all human trafficking warning signs, which can then be reviewed by superiors for further action;
    • Placing notices about human trafficking reporting procedures in conspicuous places near public entrances or in other conspicuous locations in clear view of the public and employees, as is required by similar legislation, such as Assembly Bill 2034;
    • Providing patrons with human trafficking hot-line numbers as a standard part of their welcome packages.

    While all cases are unique and factually dependent, with these tips, employers should be well-positioned to both mitigate liability and help put an end to the growing and repugnant problem that is human trafficking. 

    Fisher Phillips LLP is a national law firm committed to providing practical business solutions for employers’ workplace legal problems. Labor and employment law is all the firm does, offering deep and broad knowledge and experience in the area of the law the attorneys know best. Fisher Phillips attorneys help clients avoid legal problems, are dedicated to providing exceptional client service, and are there when you need them. The firm has over 400 attorneys in 34 offices. Learn more at www.fisherphillips.com.

    Jason Geller is the managing partner of Fisher Phillips San Francisco office. He represents and counsels employers in all aspects of labor and employment law, including employment discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment, retaliation, and wage-hour class action lawsuits, as well as employment handbook and personnel policy preparation, and general preventive advice including hiring, discipline and termination practices. Jason has extensive experience defending employers in federal and state courts, as well as in investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the DFEH, United States Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). www.fisherphillips.com/attorneys-jgeller

    Anthony Guzman is an associate in Fisher Phillips San Francisco office. His practice focuses on representing employers in the defense of wrongful termination, discrimination and harassment claims, wage and hour class and collective actions, and trade secret disputes. www.fisherphillips.com/attorneys-aguzman